Historical films can be tricky for viewers – a fact I realized after watching the 1989 miniseries Cross of Fire, starring John Heard and Mel Harris, about the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer by D.C. Stephens, a prominent K.K.K. leader, in 1925. After viewing the film, my history teacher destroyed me by saying that the valiant lawyer in the film, Klell Henry (David Morse), did not actually exist. And thus, my frequently conflicted opinion on historical/biopic films was born.
I make sure, after viewing a historical drama or biopic, that I research the topic afterward to see what the film got wrong. Not because I want to nitpick the movie and rip it to shreds, but because I want to know the truth. At the very least, even inaccurate films can open the door to further interest and research in certain topics. But when adapting delicate subjects, films bear a lot of responsibility with what they portray… and many have fumbled that opportunity.
There is nothing worse for me, regarding historical dramas, than going on to research the true events of a film and finding out that important details have been manipulated, botched, ignored, or misrepresented, because it feels like being cheated out of what could have been an amazing story. Though, many films so deserve credit for introducing audiences to topics or events that they might not have cared about otherwise.
Of course, it is impossible to adapt any historical event into film with perfect accuracy. The very idea is ridiculous. But when you’re playing with real events, real people – especially people who have passed on, and cannot offer a voice themselves – and real world issues, there is a difference between taking creative liberties, and presenting what is essentially a revisionist history. I mean, don’t even get me started on Pocahontas. I thought that shit was true until like, eighth grade. The soundtrack is a banger, though.
Though I’ve always been a fan of Queen, I’d never purport myself as a massive, die-hard fan, so I went into Bohemian Rhapsody with a partial knowledge of both Freddie Mercury and the band’s history… but even with my limited scope, I was scratching my head at a few of the events shown in the film. For example, the first meeting between Mercury and his long-time partner Jim Hutton, and the band’s implosion due to Mercury’s intention to launch a solo career – among numerous other changes, as noted in the many scathing reviews I’ve since seen scattered about the internet.
Without spoiling anything major about the film, Bohemian Rhapsody – though buoyed by the (obviously) brilliant soundtrack and an electrifying, perhaps career-defining performance from lead actor Rami Malek – shoehorns truth and history and fudges timelines into a formulaic, painfully stereotypical portrayal of a band’s bumpy rise to triumph, and the turbulent life of its legendary front man while barely scratching at the surface of Queen’s revolutionary influence on the music industry, and Mercury’s enduring legacy as one of the most iconic voices of all time. It seeks to cover the rough edges with a glossy sheen, to be a Mercury biopic, a Queen documentary, and fictional drama all in one. As a result, the film never delves as deep as it should, especially into Mercury beyond the stage, into his personal life and personal struggles.
It’s a shame, really, that “based on true events” has been skewed by egregious insertions of “drama” that never happened in real life, often invented to make the film fit a standard “storyboard” format. You don’t need “dramatic effect” when the true story is already so compelling. You don’t need manufactured tension, fake squabbles, fictionalized personalities, and a standard “rising action, falling action, climax, resolution” plotline when you are relaying a story that is interesting enough to carry itself. Sure, the watered-down, sanitized portrayal with a near family-friendly PG-13 rating will probably garner more ticket sales, and get a few casuals more invested in the band’s music. But it makes the film, though perfectly serviceable entertainment-wise, disingenuous. It’s not the film that Mercury – or Queen – deserve. Though, again, Malek’s performance is extraordinary, and it was worth seeing the film for that alone. And it is entertaining, so I’m not trying to deter anyone from seeing it.
I’m not going to go into detail about the inaccuracies, because a ton of reviewers and articles have covered it much better than I could, so here’s ScreenRant’s comprehensive list. But beware of spoilers!
This is far from the first instance of this in cinematic history. As referenced before, Pocahontas (and the sequel, which I prefer to pretend never happened) is a big offender, because it creates a love story where there wasn’t one, and sugarcoats historical events in a disillusioning manner. Braveheart, too. And The Patriot. Now, that doesn’t mean they are bad movies, because they aren’t. I actually really love The Patriot and have seen it several times. But they are bad historical movies. And, ironically, all of them feature Mel Gibson…but that’s another story.
This phenomenon of inaccuracy in films makes it all the more baffling when films like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan receive widespread acclaim for their historical accuracy regarding the events of World War II… because the characters in both films didn’t exist. I suppose that gives them more freedom, when they aren’t profiling the histories and lives of actual people, but it also makes their success more compelling, and perhaps allows them to focus more on the finer details. Grave of the Fireflies is also a highly-praised film for dealing with the effects of WWII on the Japanese – if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, though you’ll need tissues. And then, on the flip side, you get Pearl Harbor and Red Tails, which inject needless drama into real stories that were interesting enough without it.
It is, no doubt, challenging to achieve a credible level of accuracy in historical dramas, period dramas, or biopics. Not all stories fit a cinematic formula, so adapting them does require some creative liberties in order to appeal to audiences and critics alike. But it is not impossible to do so while also being respectful of those who lived through actual events being portrayed, knew of or are related to real people whose stories are being shown onscreen, and without eschewing truth in favor of drama. Audiences don’t need to be shielded from unpleasant truths, they don’t need to be shown a cookie-cutter plot, “based on a true story” should not be an afterthought, and entertainment does not need to smother historical accuracy.
Anyone else have a “Klell” moment, like I did? If so, which historical film or biopic is your biggest offender for ignoring the truth or creating a revisionist history?